Our European guru educates and enlightens
Fifteen years ago, when I was editing FourFourTwo magazine, one of my colleagues’ husbands would ‘quite literally’ (as David Pleat would say) beat his head against the wall every time Rangers embarrassed themselves in Europe.
Since then with every AEK Athens or Kaunas, I have winced as I envisaged the successive collisions between stone and bone.
But I shudder to think how many dents this particular Rangers fan has in his head after Tuesday’s debacle.
It was nice of the club to give the away tickets Unrea Urziceni didn’t use to British troops. But these soldiers must have shuddered too, surveying what, in military terms, looked like unconditional surrender by Rangers.
The Sun, as so often, got it the wrong way around with the headline Rangers 1 Minnows 4.
As many of the appalled, grief-stricken Rangers fans who couldn’t bear to watch all 90 minutes have been testifying online, there was only team that looked like minnows at Ibrox on matchday three. And it wasn’t Unirea.
Rangers' boss Walter Smith doesn’t look like a Joan Armatrading fan. Maybe Ally McCoist is.
But someone at the club, possibly inspired by her famous boast that she is so lucky she can walk under ladders, has stored up enough bad luck not to fret about breaking mirrors.
This UEFA Champions League campaign could have turned on two penalties: one not given against Sevilla, the other not taken against Unirea.
And three of Unirea’s goals were scored – or deflected into the net – by Rangers players. With a Unirea own goal giving Rangers the lead after less than two minutes, this fixture earned the dubious distinction of becoming the first Champions League game to feature four own goals.
But there’s more to Rangers’ plight than pure bad luck. They were outclassed in the second half by a compact, organised team whose play alternated between moments of rare technical proficiency and an amateurish propensity to pass the ball into touch or to an opponent.
I had rashly tipped Jerome Rothen to be instrumental in this campaign. The French winger was – just not in the way I imagined.
He was at fault for two of the goals – not tracking back to let Pablo Brandan (the best player on the pitch) cross for Unirea’s equaliser, and conceding the free-kick from which Brandan applied the coup de grace to make it 4-1.
Rothen’s errors were more conspicuous than his team-mates’ but on the evidence of the last 45 minutes, Rangers have every attribute you would expect from a big club – except a talented squad.
To his credit, Smith didn’t dissemble in his post-match interview. This was, he admitted, one of Rangers’ worst nights in Europe. The question is: where does he and the club go from here?
Their destroyers may offer a glimpse of the solution – and the problem.
Unirea, whose average league gate last season was 4,335 (compared to Rangers’ 49,143), have assembled a squad that can compete on the European stage without ever spending more than £350,000 on a player.
Although the Romanian national team is in the doldrums, the country continues to generate a phenomenal amount of raw talent. While Cluj won the Romanian title in 2008 with a host of foreigners, all but six of Unirea’s squad are home-grown.
Which brings me to my point. (You knew I’d get there eventually). Would Smith, drawing primarily on talent within the Scottish game, be able to assemble as gifted a squad as Petrescu has?
The opprobrium, as always after such a disaster, is heaped upon the players, coaches and club.
But this humbling of the Scottish champions raises questions about the future – and quality – of Scottish football which are much too big to be answered with a mere change of coach, tactics, player or owner.
In the meantime, I’ll email my old friend and tactfully suggest that, before Rangers’ next game, she buy her husband a crash helmet.
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